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Firaxis On How Civ: Beyond Earth Really Isn't Alpha Centauri

"It's the worst jello mold you've ever seen"

Someone's finally making an Alpha Centauri successor! Kinda. Civilization: Beyond Earth takes Sid Meier's famed turn-based strategy series (that Sid Meier only kinda works on these days) and flings it into the stars like a colonial frisbee. I got to play a little at a recent 2K preview event, but not enough to render much of a verdict other than, "I really want to see more than just the first 50 turns," "The affinity system is neat," "Roaming alien creatures that may or may not attack add great tension," and "Discovering this universe will be really cool the first few times, but I doubt that part will hold up 5 or 10 games in." It also kinda feels a lot like Civilization V at the moment, but again, I only got to play the early parts of a match.  

Afterward, I stuck around and had a nice chat with co-lead (yes, co-lead) designers Will Miller and David McDonough, and we talked about why Beyond Earth really isn't Alpha Centauri II at all, why Firaxis decided against making a direct successor to Alpha Centauri, striking a balance between old-school Civ and more "dramatic" games like Civilization Revolution, games shaping history/culture, mod support, and massive man-made brain monsters that look like jello molds. 

RPS: So first of all can I get your names and positions at Firaxis?

Miller: I'm Will Miller. I'm co-lead designer on Beyond Earth. I used to have hair that kind of looked like yours.

RPS: I can tell. I need to soon have hair that looks like yours. Mine's a little too much at this point.

McDonough: I'm David McDonough. I'm also co-lead designer on Beyond Earth.

RPS: That's an interesting setup. Co-lead designers. You don't hear that much.

McDonough: We've actually been friends since college, when his hair looked like that.

Miller: When my hair looked like that. And getting to work on a game like this is incredible. To get to do it with your best friends is... yeah. A long time coming.

RPS: So why do the co-lead thing? I feel like I've met a lot of designers who are really good friends, but I don't think they've ever just gone lead and lead.

McDonough: Well everyone at Firaxis are designer-programmers. They are implementers of the game core, and that comes from Sid and the way he's always made games himself. To be elbow deep in the code all the time is a big job, and when we were in college together we learned to make games together, kind of side by side, sharing all of the implementation responsibilities, and designing by doing.

When we got the opportunity to do that at Firaxis we insisted on being able to do it this way, being able to be side by side partnership designer programmers. So as a result the two of us bear all the vision for the game, but also all of the game core is programmed side by side and we share all the work. And having two people is a lot of work.

Miller: The two of us aren't, like, programming the whole game, though.

McDonough: We have a very talented team of engine programmers, game play programmers, that work with us. But we're two very different people and have two very distinct perspectives on what Civilization is and what we like about it, and we work very well together to kind of arrive at a neat conclusion.

It's been really cool, and it is kind of a new thing here at Firaxis. It's a singular sort of setup, but... actually not really. You had Jake Solomon and Casey O'Toole on XCOM. It wasn't titled that way, but the two of them worked very closely together. Ed Beach, who was the lead designer on the Civ 5 expansions, collaborated very closely with his designers in the office. So the notion of collaborative design is very common at the studio. I think this is the first time it's been codified in such a way.

RPS: You said that you both have different approaches to what you think Civ should be. What are those, respectively?

Miller: Hard to sum up in a nutshell, but I grew up playing core Civ. The First game I ever played was Civ 2, so I care about the legacy of Civ and the tradition of its strength and its depth and its weight and sort of the heavy duty Civ Stuff. Not maybe to the extent of a Civ fanatic, but definitely in the model of a Civ traditionalist.

So in this game, this game is a pretty significant departure from Civ, but has to retain the Civ core identity. The bones of it. So my emphasis is very much on how does this game belong to the Civ legacy and stay within the Civ cannon while still doing all of these radical cool things. But really that's a gross simplification.

McDonough: I'm much more irreverent when it comes to Civ. My favorite Civ was Civilization Revolution, actually. There's a drama there and a speed there and a liveliness that the core Civ kind of lacks, and we're try to bring some of that into this project. So these two different perspectives I think work very well together, and we respect each other a lot. That makes for a great working relationship.

RPS: You talk about the drama and speed. How do you design a system to invoke drama, or create it, as opposed to just all of the machinery clicking together in ways that merely make systemic sense?

McDonough: There are many, many examples of that. One is to make players different from each other. Change the game such that it's not as symmetrically balanced anymore. We always want a game to be balanced, but we want to balance it in such a way that my build can be substantially different from your build.

And that comes out in things like the tech tree and the unit progression. Cause the tech tree is non-linear now, and it's not you sort of researching the same techs from left to right, perhaps in a slightly different order but generally you get the same things about the same time. In Beyond Earth I could have a completely different research path than you do, and that makes for drama. That makes for a really interesting game play situation.

The aliens are also a great way we do that. They're a destabilizing agent. We made an iOS game called Haunted Hollow before we came onto this, and it has a similar destabilizing agent in the angry town mob. But this idea of a destabilizing agent is important, that you have to contend with and it kind of keeps you on your toes. We never want there to be a critical path through the game. A lot of times we'll go to the forums and see, “This is the build order that works the best” or “this is the research order that works the best." We want that to be impossible in this game. We want you to really have to think about what your situation is and how you're going to negotiate it.

RPS: One of your big influences is Alpha Centauri, as you have made very known. For one, why append that onto Civ? Why not make it it's own thing, and just do an Alpha Centauri successor? Why make it a Civilization game specifically?

PR: I'll jump in here. Alpha Centauri's IP is owned by EA, so we don't have access to it. Which is one easy answer, but...

Miller: That's an easy answer, but I think even if we had the Alpha Centauri IP available I don't know if we would've decided to do a sequel to it. I mean this is really such a different game, and if you look back at Alpha Centauri and how it's a companion to Civ 2, or is it Civ 3? It's a very good companion to those games but I think what we brought to the table with this game is what we've learned in the decade since we made that.

I think fundamentally Beyond Earth is a much more optimistic perspective on our future in space. I mean, in Alpha Centauri you get to a planet on the Starship Unity and you're already at each others throats. It's kind of a pessimistic way to start everything, but this is a much more optimistic view. And of course there's conflict, but we wanted to present this aspirational product, and that has influenced a lot of the decision making.

And of course we love Alpha Centauri, we pay homage to that all over the place in this game, but it is a very different game. I'd even, I mean you could say spiritual successor to Alpha Centauri, because we built this game for fans of that game, but it's different enough that I don't even think that you can put it in the same [lineage]. It's a Civ in space, that's about it. Beyond the winks and nods.

RPS: We were playing to a 50 turn limit in the demo, but what are the win conditions in this one?

McDonough: Well, there's five. Civ has always had a myriad of ways to win and ours are sort of rooted in the futuristic sci-fi realm. You may have heard of the affinities [that you spec into as matches progress]: purity, harmony, and supremacy. Three of the win conditions jump off from there. There's the ultimate expression or end game devoted to a given affinity. So for harmony with the planet and your new environment, there's Transcendence, which is you build this giant bio-mechanical brain machine and talk to the planet and achieve a new level of consciousness.

Miller: It's the worst jello mold you've ever seen.

McDonough: It's pretty gross. Gross/awesome looking. Purity and Supremacy are both kind of like earth focused. When you left your goal was supposed to be to save humanity, and purity says, “Alright, we're going to use that very literally. We're going to contact earth and bring earthling settlers forward and find new homes for them on the surface of the planet, shoving other people out of their territory where necessary.”

And then Supremacy says “Well we're going to save people too, from their very existence.” They're going to build a gate as well, but they're going to send a military back to earth, and kind of "liberate" it, so to speak. That's called emancipation right?

And then there's domination, which is just military conquest. If you're the last Civ on the planet you win.

And the the last one, which is most interesting I think, is Contact victory, which is derived from the Carl Sagan story. All across the planet in all different ways, from the orbital layer to the ruins you find scattered around the aliens themselves, are clues to the existence of a sentient alien race with predates humanity by millenia. When you piece together the puzzle of who they were, decode the signal that they left behind, they left a blueprint to build a communication device to talk to them across the stars, called a beacon.

When you build it and turn it on and invest enough of your Civ's resources in it, they answer, and you become the first human beings ever to speak to another sentient being and become ambassadors for the species. So all five of these are really kind of huge leaping off points. Like next great chapter, turning the page for the story of human kind, and in different ways.

RPS: So the only real sentient alien species is the one that you can find by way of piecing together those clues? No competing with or playing as alien Civs?

McDonough: Right.

Miller: We've gotten the question a lot, “Why aren't there aliens? Why can't you play as aliens in this game?” That was a question that was very easy for us to answer early in developing this. We wanted this game to be about people, about us, and how we go to a new world and thrive there. It's a human story. It's not an alien story. There are aliens in it, but it's a story about us. So that's why the AI leaders are human leaders, and you make contact with sentient alien beings, but it's sort of mysterious who they are and all of that. We kind of leave it up to the imagination.

RPS: Civilization has always told very human stories through the lens of history versus something like sci-fi. How does that change your approach to telling a human story when you're working with something so different from history?

Miller: It's been a big challenge for us. Balancing what's known and what's unknown, even down to teaching the game to people, like what does this thing do, you know? So we start very conventional in terms of our technology and work out to the more fantastic. Each incremental step is plausible, so when you get to the end and you look like green people or cyborgs or whatever you can look back at the steps you took to get there and it all makes sense.

We want it to feel realistic, to keep your suspension of disbelief throughout the entire period. But it was a fun challenge, because Civilization has history as the tree to hang your ornaments on, and we've had to provide that to the player through the quest system, through the technology quotes and civilpedia, and kind of various ways we can inject fiction into the game without being so heavy handed that we're telling the story for you. It's always our intent for you to tell the story, but we need to give you this basis to do so, and that's where the systems come in.

McDonough: We talk a lot about the quest system in the game, which is a new idea for Civ, that's one of the big vehicles for this narrative story. Because they tell it in pieces that react to the player, and the player invests into each affinity that they want based on what they're doing and what they care about.

Those are all little windows in to the lore, into the happenings, into the back story or the future of the planet, and the player will accumulate those pieces over the course of their game play and by the time that they're done they will add up in their particular story - in such a way that if they played the game again they could add up into a totally different story. So it's an infinity of world and an infinity of colony ships and futures for humanity that players will get to invent.

RPS: In constructing all of this, including the fiction that you're working with, how much are you drawing from sci-fi versus pure science?

McDonough: It's really been important for us to draw from both very strongly. We're a huge fan of both, actually science and good great science-fiction too. With the story that we set up we deliberately set it up so you land on the planet when you start the game, you're not really that far from where we are today. You're in a fairly recognizable place. Fans of contemporary space flight and technology and futurism will recognize all the stuff right away.

But then like Will said, you sort of take these steps one by one towards the far imaginary fringes of the game and sci-fi stuff, and that's where it starts to bleed in. But it's been very important to maintain this thread of plausibility and and choose science-fiction end points for the game that draw from the realistic origins, that's it's always a continuum.

We love sci-fi, we draw on the classics from literature, but also from film and pop culture and stuff like that. And the game will throw some pretty fun wild crazy things, very fictitious stuff that you can do by the end of it. But still always with this thread back to the real science. So you know, you can look at it and go, “Maybe this could all be possible.”

RPS: Right. When man first looked at the stars he said, “Maybe I could make a giant brain.”

McDonough: That looks like a jello mold.

Miller: Exactly.

McDonough: It's gross. It's so awesome.

RPS: What specific things are you drawing on though? Which works? You're saying the classics, but that could mean any number of them.

McDonough: Classic sci-fi writers like Asimov and Heinlein, and Frank Herbert, and Orson Scott Card, Ray Bradbury. Classic film like Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, but also some less expected stuff like Aliens and Predator, and Firefly. More contemporary stuff.

Miller: And on the other end of the spectrum you have Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, and that's a huge influence on just us as people, but also in our respect for manned space flight and all that. And movies like The Right Stuff, or Apollo 13, any of these works that-

McDonough: 2001.

Miller: 2001. Any of these works that really portray space flight as romance and danger and wonder. And those are all things that we wanted to put into this game. That's why we really like the subject matter in the first place.

RPS: Right, because with history, obviously with Civ there's still an element of discovery. You're always going through finding various civilizations and interacting with them, but you still know earth. You know what's going to be there, versus this, where is seems like especially on your first few games you have no idea what you're going to encounter.

McDonough: Right, so when you land on the planet it's a whole world. Fully alive and full of things and strange resources and terrain and crazy obstacles the nature of which you don't fully understand. You're first goal is always going to be just to find your footing. In most places you probably know what to expect, but it definitely has different roller coaster peaks and valleys than historic Civ, deliberately so.

RPS: You talk about Beyond Earth's vision of the future being a lot more optimistic than Alpha Centauri's, and then you were also talking about the notion of discovery and all of that. It seems just based on those things, and correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems that you guys are just really into the notion of space and space travel and exploration.

McDonough: Well intuited, we certainly are.

RPS: And so just on that, right now it's kind of at an odd place because it's not the most funded thing ever, and a lot of private companies are taking up the reins. Do you think that works like the ones you make can have in impact on people's desire to go explore, or to be interested in space exploration? 

McDonough: That's a very powerful question, and I would say it would be the honor of my life if it did. Looking at the realities of our world today, from space exploration to climate crisis to whatever, saying, “I spend my time making video games” kinda seems like you're wasting it. But somebody once said that to make games was to participate in making culture.

Sort of like taking your kid fishing will teach them to love nature, if you give your son or daughter a great game that they remember forever, that can do the same thing. For example, we grew up playing the Civ games, and now look at us. So if this game makes people curious about the cosmos, then wonderful, I really hope it does.

PR: To build on that to actually make a real example, we've been getting an increase in requests from professors and stuff, and we're actually talking to one who used us in a lecture, and he focuses on the habitation of alien planets. That's what his focus is in science. And he's started to mention Beyond Earth in his lectures on human history and progress.

McDonough: Civ has got a long legacy of having inadvertent entry in to educational material for it's historical value, and it'd be pretty incredible if this had the same kind of impact in sort of a futurism, or sustainable engineering, or space flight kind of way.

RPS: It's kind of an interesting topic in general, because I feel like there's multiple schools of thought on that. I think a lot of people, especially in game design, are just now starting to realize that they have that cultural impact. There are some people who are just like, “Oh I'm just making a game, it's not a big deal!” But when your thing is being consumed by millions of people it's almost inherently a big deal.

Miller: Right, I think Warren Spector said we only get to make 20 games in our career, so make them count if you can. People don't always get to make the games that they want to make, and it's been our great fortune in our career to be able to work on some really awesome games that we care a lot about and that are important to us. Not just because they are fun, but because they are important at large, this being the prime example of that. This is our love letter to space flight. It's the closest we'll get to it. Better make it count.

RPS: Well you never know! You could John Carmack it. Start building real space ships.

McDonough: We'd have to be really successful. Anyway, if the fans out there buy 10,000,000 copies of Beyond Earth, I will John Carmack it. I will make that deal with them.

RPS: Or you could even be like Richard Garriott. Blast off into space. Leave us puny earthlings behind and then come back and Kickstart a game about wizards.

McDonough: Yeah Richard Garriott would be the right guy.

RPS: For the Civ series this is pretty out there, but just sitting around at Firaxis and stuff, do you guys ever have even more crazy places to take Civ? Like, “Hey, instead of doing history or sci-fi, we can do this thing! ”

McDonough: I think we've been making Civ for so long that one of every kind has come through the studio at some point. And yeah, I think a lot of them would be fun to make, a lot of them are pretty wild. Historic Civ is definitely what Civ is in it's bones. When this thing lands it's going to be it's own world version.

But the Civ idea is ideally suited to the future, it sets itself up so well. And you know we've seen, obviously, Alpha Centauri, and we know how much love this and have been asking for it for decades. And we've been wanting to make it for decades, and finally to have the opportunity to do it is just an unbelievable privilege. It all came together at the right time to get to take this idea, to take this particular kernel and make it bloom.

RPS: So do you think this could branch off an become it's own Civ side series?

McDonough: Who knows? I mean in the future who could say? Right now we're pretty focused on making this one, but we definitely think of it as a game that lives and stands on it's own as a unique Civ experience. It belongs to the Civ legacy but is it's own entry. And we have very high hopes for it's success.

RPS: On the main menu screen I found a very big tab for mods. Are you doing pretty dedicated mod support? If so, how are you building on from Civ 5?

Miller: Mod support has been expanded with the new systems that we've put in and the revisions to the ones we've made. We've paid very careful attention to modders, and the way that Civilization V was architected has kind of limited the ability of modders to really fundamentally change the game, so all of the new systems we've put in we've said, “Alright, how can we expose the most of this? How much of this can we put in the hands of modders?”

Because we're really excited about what they'll do, because of the setting. I want people to, take the quest system for example. The implementation of that is so bare bones, and all of it's complexity comes from the script side of things that modders have access to. So you could completely change the quests and how they works and what they are, and all of that stuff is available to you. That was definitely something we wanted to retain and improve on.

RPS: With new races, landscapes, and quests, we could essentially revisit that initial sense of exploratory discovery over and over and over. That'd be utterly nuts.

Miller: Yeah, it really would be.

RPS: Thank you for your time.

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